Cultural literacy: Navigating the challenges and opportunities

At its foundation, literacy is the ability to read, write, speak and use fundamental math skills. But as we know as literacy practitioners, literacy involves so much more than that.

Among the numerous forms of literacy that assist us in navigating life and participating fully in society, one is particularly vital: cultural literacy. As a crucial skillset for individuals and our collective community, it allows us to cultivate understanding when engaging with others in cultural interactions. Perhaps most importantly, it helps us foster peace in our society.

Here, we’ll talk about what cultural literacy means, some challenges you may encounter while teaching, and ways to overcome those challenges at your literacy organization.

What is cultural literacy?

Cultural literacy means being able to understand the traditions, regular activities and history of a group of people from a given culture. It also means being able to engage with these traditions, activities and history in cultural spaces like museums and galleries as well as at performances.

Culture is how a group of people lives. It includes their language, arts, science, beliefs, practices, and their understanding of their environment. When we have cultural literacy skills, we can better understand and respect various cultural differences, like the traditions and histories of different groups. We can relate to and interact with people from different backgrounds, leading to greater acceptance of others.

Being culturally literate is especially important if someone is part of the dominant culture. Understanding the social and cultural phenomena that shape our lives helps us become more culturally sensitive and aware. We can apply literary thinking to societal and cultural issues, employ communication and extend understanding beyond our own culture. Culturally-literate people also value diversity more, leading to fewer cultural conflicts.

Having cultural literacy skills helps us positively impact society and work to achieve active forms of citizenship. In a society, cultural literacy helps reduce prejudice due to cultural differences, enhances the importance of diversity, and boosts participation in societal activities (such as accessing institutions and services).

Obstacles preventing cultural literacy

Although the importance of having cultural literacy is significant, there are countless obstacles preventing people from strengthening this skill set.

Unconscious biases and stereotypes

An automatic, often unconscious, biases can create thoughts and feelings about other cultures and people. Having biases can create unfair treatment, discrimination and the continuation of stereotypes. Stereotypes and generalizations can often lead to misinterpreting cultural norms and behaviours.

To break the cycle, we can partake in unconscious bias training, which raises awareness about our biases and provides helpful strategies to change them.

Communication barriers

Understanding and overcoming language and communication barriers is essential for nurturing inclusivity and guaranteeing fair access to services.

Being mindful of cultural differences in communication styles, body language and non-verbal cues, plus utilizing professional interpreters, can help navigate these challenges.

Regardless of culture, always encourage open and respectful communication and promote culturally sensitive communication skills. For example, when communicating with someone who doesn’t speak English fluently, stay relevant to the topic, avoid humour and colloquialisms, and use simple language. Always provide the ability for someone to ask you for clarification, too.

Insufficient cultural awareness and understanding

Strengthening our cultural literacy skills is challenging without overcoming cultural blind spots. Failing to understand that there are multiple perspectives and experiences of people prevents us from navigating cultural differences respectfully.

Connecting cultural knowledge disparities and boosting cultural sensitivity is helpful with education and exposure. Communicating with people from other cultures, participating in cultural awareness training programs, and engaging in experiential learning activities (like volunteering or travelling) can help promote a more culturally sensitive mindset.

Power dynamics and privilege

Power dynamics can create inequalities when making decisions, allocating resources, and pursuing advancement opportunities. When we’re able to recognize these dynamics, we’re better able to practise inclusivity and equality.

When a person from a dominant social group receives advantages due to social, economic or cultural status, privilege plays a part. Privilege can generate barriers, reinforce biases and prevent cultural competency efforts.

To address power dynamics and privilege, we must first fully understand cultural competency – recognizing the varying views and cultures of others. Once that happens, we’re better equipped to challenge existing systems of inequality and promote diversity and inclusion instead. In an organization, this may look like providing similar opportunities for professional development to all employees.

Reluctance to change and flexibility

Change is typically hard, no matter what we do in life. When we try to strengthen our cultural literacy skills, we need to overcome resistance and be ready to adapt to culturally sensitive environments.

Implementing collaborative decision-making processes with team members, encouraging open and honest communication with others, and attending training programs and workshops can help overcome resistance.

Ways to overcome challenges in achieving cultural literacy

Forming empathic, tolerant and inclusive interactions is critical to becoming culturally literate. Some ways to improve your and your adult learners’ cultural literacy include:

1. Encouraging participation in cultural activities: Visiting museums, attending lectures by cultural speakers and experts, and participating in cultural activities all help strengthen cultural literacy.

Resources and workshops such as Learning at the Museum can make cultural spaces accessible to more people.

Celebrating learners’ traditional holidays and ceremonies is another excellent way to promote cultural awareness.

2. Educating ourselves: Besides encouraging your adult learners to become more culturally literate, we as educators need to do the same. Attend cultural sensitivity training and utilize effective cultural sensitivity training methods.

Review resources on teaching approaches that help you better understand and implement essential social and cultural literacies. Learn how to navigate tough discussions, recognize and address biases and prejudices, establish inclusive learning environments and advocate for social justice.

3. Teaching anti-bias education: When planning literacy lessons, incorporate articles and lessons on cultural issues that ignite thoughtful classroom discussions. For literacy materials, provide options for books that prioritize cultural and social issues and help build perspective for readers.

And, of course, always foster an environment where individuals from all cultural backgrounds feel comfortable and where diverse perspectives are welcomed and respected.

Being culturally literate is vital in our modern era – no matter where you live. In a Canadian society that embraces ongoing immigration and evolution, possessing the ability to comprehend and engage with diverse cultures is particularly crucial.

That’s why developing an understanding of roadblocks to cultural literacy – and even more importantly, solutions to achieving stronger cultural literacy – needs to be a priority for us as literacy practitioners.

For more information on cultural literacy, visit our website.